Environmental Heroism Has No Age Limit
Older activists are taking the lead on the front lines of environmental justice
Those of us of a certain age remember the promise of "better living through chemistry," a promise as iconic as the "one word" of career advice uttered to Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate": "Plastics."
We've since learned that unqualified mid-century notions of "progress" have a darker side, one that was brought into the light this winter when a freight train hauling hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in explosions, fire and toxic clouds.
The disaster also caused a spasm of national outrage over what local residents and others assailed as a torpid response by Norfolk Southern Railroad and its government regulators. Several tank cars were loaded with chemicals used to manufacture plastics, more than 90% of which are made from oil or natural gas.
Welcome to 'Cancer Alley'
But long before the East Palestine calamity, a battle against toxic industrial pollution from petrochemicals has raged — largely out of the national spotlight — in the slice of Mississippi delta known as "Cancer Alley," for the harmful pollutants produced by more than 200 industrial facilities there.
State regulators in Louisiana have taken issue with the term "Cancer Alley," claiming there has been no documented spike in cancers along the industrial corridor. Mounting evidence refutes that claim.
A common thread that runs among the leaders in this fight is that they tend to be older residents who have orchestrated the pushback against expansion of petrochemical plants in their largely low-income, minority towns. But why and how have these elders emerged as the workhorses of community action, when they could be enjoying retirement? We decided to ask two of them.
'A Rare Human Being'
After 38 years teaching in public school, Sharon Lavigne, now 70, founded RISE St. James, a community effort to combat the heavy-industrial sprawl that was engulfing her Mississippi River town: St. James, Louisiana. "I'm going after 'em," she tells Next Avenue. "I'm tired of them. People [are] dying early because of industry."
And go after them she has. In 2021, her work won her one of environmental activism's most prestigious awards, the Goldman Prize. Her Goldman profile cites how she and a platoon of local activists "successfully stopped the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant," after Lavigne "mobilized grassroots opposition to the project, educated community members, and organized peaceful protests to defend her predominantly African American community."
The racial predominance is no accident. The serpentine string of heavy industrial sites along the river map uncannily to the locations of antebellum plantations. Many residents of St. James and nearby parishes are descendants of enslaved people.
"Sharon is a rare human being," observes Anne Rolfes, 54, who founded the activist Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which supports communities affected by the oil, gas and chemical industries. "I've been doing this work along the Mississippi River for 24 years, and there are maybe five people who have had that level of energy. And she is a yes person. So every time there is something to do, her answer is yes."
The work has been unrelenting, consuming most of Lavigne's life for the past six years.
"It's exhausting," she admits. But her Christian faith and an ineffable inner imperative keeps her going. "I just can't lay around in bed," she says. "I just can't, so the inside of me makes me go."
She goes despite nagging health issues, some of which she's convinced are linked to the levels of pollution in her part of the Delta. Studies have shown a range of health effects correlated with the refining of fossil fuels and the associated production of plastics.
"We need to limit the sort of explosive growth of this industry because it's really having a profound impact on the climate, on human health and on the environment."
People who live near industrial sites have elevated risks for respiratory illness and a range of cancers. Adding to the stress is the constant challenge of standing up to multinational corporations and unmoved government officials, who are pressing for more expansion.
"We need to limit the sort of explosive growth of this industry because it's really having a profound impact on the climate, on human health and on the environment," says Eric de Place, who leads the Beyond Petrochemicals initiative at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The petrochemical industry has more than 100 expansion projects either completed or in the planning stages, just in Louisiana and Texas, according to a Bloomberg tally. "More than half of the growth is concentrated in areas where the industry is already really dense — areas that have tremendous historical pollution burdens," says de Place.
Older Activists Lead the Way
But even as some of Lavigne's six adult children are picking up the mantle she's worn so heavily, she knows that no amount of youthful energy could replace what she brings to the trenches. "No, it was harder when I first started," she recalls, "because I didn't know what I was doing. I had to do research and everything, but now I know more about what I'm doing."
Rolfes says it's not unusual for older activists to lead the charge in communities fighting for environmental justice. In fact, she says it's happening all over.
"There's a good portion of the community that's oblivious because they're busy raising kids," notes Rolfes. "They have calls on their time that some of the older people do not have. And so, yeah, there's a tremendous debt that people owe [to their elders] that they have no idea they owe."
"We feel like half of our life is gone," says Lavigne, "and the rest of our life, we're going to dedicate to save the community that's going to be there after we are gone."
Two hundred miles west of St. James Parish, John Beard is mounting a similar counteroffensive, as founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, in Port Arthur, Texas, which he describes as an "environmental social and racial justice community development organization."
Beard is cagey about his age, saying only that he is in his "mid-60s" but given the energy he exudes, one could easily peg him at 20 years younger.
"I'm very energetic, energized," he says. "A lot of times I have to turn the thermostat down a bit so it doesn't get too frantic."
He has needed that energy reserve because where he lives, the east end of the Texas Gulf Coast, hosts another cluster of petrochemical plants. Beard himself worked in the industry for nearly 40 years. He agrees with Lavigne that experience matters on the front lines of environmental justice.
"It's somewhat natural because we've experienced it all," he says. "We've gone through it."
"A lot of my travels have taken me to places over the years and shown me that a better way of life is possible. We don't have to live like this, we don't have to have the pollution. We can still have some of the industry, but the pollution has to stop. The impact on lives and health can't simply just be written off."
"We don't have to live like this, we don't have to have the pollution."
According to the website of Moms Clean Air Force, an activist group, "a study in Texas found that living closer to oil refineries was associated with higher rates of bladder, breast, colon, lung, lymphoma and prostate cancers. Those living within 10 miles faced the greatest risk."
"I can look from our front yard and I can see what's now the largest refinery in the country," notes Beard. "We can look out the kitchen window and I can see one of the other large refineries just two blocks away."
"I don't have any grandchildren," he continues, "but I have friends, classmates that have grandchildren who are on nebulizers and have to take breathing treatments and shots."
His Goal: 'Save the Planet'
Bloomberg's de Place says Lavigne, Beard and other people have demonstrated around the country is that change is possible. "It requires sustained, organized effort," he says, "but there is every reason to believe that local communities can take power back away from the industry and write a new story for themselves."
In Port Arthur, the Texas Tribune has called Beard's organization "the de facto face of the fight against these plants, representing Port Arthur residents who are tired of being on the receiving end of pollution."
"I just want to use everything that I have that's been put in me to be a part of this movement and to help, because we're in the great fight of the age," Beard proclaims.
"They say every generation has its challenges, but I think we probably got the greatest challenge," he adds. "Our challenge is to save humanity, to save this planet, which is the only planet we have. If we destroy it, we are in essence destroying ourselves."
"To be in this space with people who feel and think that way and want to do this, there's no greater pleasure than living a life with that kind of purpose."